Of all the possible reactions to Barack Obama’s historical victory this week, I wasn’t prepared for a lead story about the black and red dress Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s acceptance in Chicago. If you read the comments (and I’m not suggesting you do; the punctuation alone will drive you mad) you’ll find a pathological animosity toward the next first lady’s appearance: her teeth, her size, how she walks, how she stands. It’s not just her dress many commentors hate, it’s her physicality itself. If it weren’t so horrifying, it might be amusing to read commentors’ struggles to put their fingers on exactly what is wrong with Michelle Obama (her choice of pantyhose, one comment suggests?) There’s just something inexplicable about her (um, her race) that rubs some folks the wrong way.
While many of the negative comments about Michelle Obama are clearly racist, the fact that this racism is directed at her physical appearance suggests the ways that women’s competence or legitimacy is often judged in terms of appearance. This seemingly trivial topic has vexed both sides of this campaign. In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rose Stremlau argues that the “vulgar and crass” public comments about Sarah Palin represent an inability “to accept female authority on its own merits.” Stremlau goes on to make a comparison between how female politicians are treated and how female professors are often sexualized by students—with inappropriate student comments on evaluations (like “nice ass”) becoming a part of one’s professional record.
Opinions about how female professors should best dress vary. The impeccable Ms. Mentor generally counsels untenured women to avoid drawing attention to their bodies/sexuality. While this is pragmatic advice, it misses the point: Women with public authority will always be subjected to intense scrutiny and judgment. If you wear a navy suit, you still face comments about makeup (or lack thereof), weight, and cleavage.
When I started teaching, I wore short dresses and clunky heels. While pregnant I stood in the front of the class and rubbed my belly. I expect I will revel in my gray hair, although the persona of crone may be harder to pull off than Madonna or whore. After all, older women are invisible in popular discourse.
So maybe that’s why I relish the sight of Michelle Obama, slightly awkward but firmly herself, unapologetically tall and womanly. And while there is so much more to our future first lady than her looks, I think she’s a beautiful sight.